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What you should know about gastroenteritis

While you might well be unsure about that medical term – gastroenteritis – but it is a common affliction, with unpleasant symptoms. It is actually caused by an infection of the stomach and bowel (or large intestine) and featured in news headlines the world over when Queen Elizabeth succumbed to the condition. She was forced to cancel engagements and was kept under observation for two days.

Causes of gastroenteritis

There can be no denying the onset of the condition as its most common symptoms are vomiting and repeated episodes of diarrhoea. Neither can the extent of gastroenteritis be underestimated, as approximately one in five of the UK population will be affected in any one year. The actual figures may even be higher as patients with mild symptoms do not always report them.

According to the National Health Service, when gastroenteritis strikes adults it has two main causes: food poisoning, or norovirus - the so-called winter vomiting bug.The chief way that the body is attacked is that the infection hampers the ability of the intestines to absorb water. This is what leads to the debilitating watery diarrhoea, and the dehydration that is a common complication.

1. Food poisoning

The tell-tale symptoms of gastroenteritis will commence between one and three days after eating contaminated food. The key symptoms to look out for are diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the stomach. The foodstuffs that are most prone to contamination include any that are not cooked, handled or storedproperly. Foods that are particularly prone to contamination include:-

  • Raw poultry and meat
  • Ready-cooked slived meats, pate or soft cheese
  • Pre-packed sandwiches
  • Diary products

The cures for food poisoning include rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating easily digestible foods like toast or cereal bars. In some instances, such as when a patient is over 65, or has a condition that weakens the immune system (typically cancer or HIV) the effects can be more serious. In England and Wales, an average of 190 people die from gastroenteritis.

2. Norovirus

Noroviruses are the commonest cause of gastroenteritis, affecting up to one million peoplein the UK every year.

How gastroenteritis is spread

One of the main issues with the condition is the fact it is highly infectious. Unfortunately the commonest method of spreading gastroenteritis is when bacteria that lives in faeces is transferred to the mouth.This type of transfer can occur when hygiene is poor. Not washing hands after visiting the toilet is one of the most common examples. This becomes acute when viruses or bacteria on the skin get transferred to anything touched, such as kitchen utensils, drinking vessels or food. Touching food that is contaminated is another way that gastroenteritis is spread.

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